Monthly Archives: February 2013

Gargi – unique or “one of many”?


In many Hindu articles and blogs, the Brahmavadin Gargi Vachaknavi is mentioned proudly as a shining example of the glory of Indian women and the superior status that Vedic women had.

Gargi Vachaknavi appears in the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad in a section relating a philosophical session (Brahma sabha) in King Janaka’s court. Many scholars in the court question the renowned sage Yajnawalkya on the nature of Brahman. Gargi is one of the questioners who raise some of the more difficult questions. She does concede to the scholarship of Yajnawalkya at the end. 

All the recent mentions of Gargi Vachaknavi (blogs, articles, Upanishad Ganga TV serial) seem to hold a tone of surprise and special appreciation about the fact that a unmarried girl was part of the Brahma sabha and dared to question the great sage Yajnawalkya in the august court of King Janaka in the presence of many famous scholars and philosophers.

In the context of the last couple of millennia with so very few women scholars/philosophers not just in Hinduism, but in all religions, the mention of women like Gargi, Mythreyi, Ghosa, etc come with a element of uniqueness and surprise. 

However, when I read the actual translation of the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad, what struck me was that there is no “special’ mention of Gargi’s “womanhood”. She is just treated as one of the other scholars. There is neither a tone of surprise nor of appreciation that there is a woman in the mix.

This leads me to believe that, though Gargi rose to the “cream” of the women due to her presence in a large court, it was not so uncommon for women to learn and discuss Brahma gnana and philosophical topics. If she were so unique, the Brhdaranyaka would have indicated it. 

Many of the sutras talk about women being initiated (upanayanam) –

Harita says that women are of two types: those who speak about Brahman and those who soon become wives. Of them, the first type has initiation, establishment of fire, the vedic studies and observance of begging alms. The second is just initiated and soon married. Yama also mentions tying of munja grass girdle (upanayana) for women who were taught the Vedas and who had to recite the Savitri (the sacred Gayatri mantra). Katyayana, Yajnikadeva and Satyasadha specifically mention chanting and performing fire ablutions for unmarried girls.

So, it is quite possible that many women were educated in the knowledge of Brahman and the various religious texts, and could hold forth equal to men in these topics. Gargi and others, while the “cream” appearing in the Upanishads, may not have been so unique as we suppose them to be.

More than quoting a handful of special women, it is the ubiquity of women scholars that should cited more often. An ubiquity that is still missing in the modern world, where we have equality in many areas, but not in the most important pursuit – the spiritual realm!



How many miles to “self realization” ?

I was feeling dejected that even after several years of study and contemplation of Vedantic texts, I still didn’t see much progress in my behavior or attitude.
Swamiji asked “Do you think you’re on the right path?”. After having attended a zillion of his lectures, after nearly a hundred days of one-on-one advice from him, after all the hours of reading and listening to Vedantic topics, it seemed discourteous and blasphemous to even say “No”. So, I did say “yes”.
In thinking further, who am I to even judge that I am on the “right” path? Or, aren’t we all in the “path” in some form or fashion though we may stray away often into habitual off-roads or tempting scenic routes?
I guess the only reason to think we are on the “path” is the simple internal belief that we are on the “path”. And maybe the understanding that there is a goal to reach beyond living a normal life – the goal of “self-realization” and a slowly growing desire to attain it. The desire seems to burn bright once in a blue moon, and then the torrents of life fling one away from it leaving behind a trace of that desire like the faint impression of a old table on the carpet.
Anyway, going on with Swamiji’s query, he continued “Believe that you are on the right path and that you will progress. Measuring progress, getting elated with perceived progress, dejected with supposed failures, comparing with others, setting milestones are not conducive to spiritual sadhakas”.
This was timely advice for me. As if the agitations of the mind in the vyavarika world is not enough, I was adding to it the pressure of progress/performance/milestones of spiritual sadhana. It is the ingrained habit that we develop right from childhood to measure progress – tests, grades, ranks, competitions, interview acceptances, performance assessments, KPIs, metrics, weight goals, children’s growth, calorie goals, paycheck earned, bonus, interest earned – all that entrench into our thinking, this notion of measurable progress.
I forgot that “Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana” is very much true violated for spiritual sadhana too!

Faith is beyond measurement. I have to learn to “just be”. (And throw away all units of measurement)

Source of cartoon: Arunachala Ramana forum

Oldest Profession? Call it “Oldest vice”


In the aftermath of the sorry “Nirbhaya” episode, many politicians, celebrities and even so-called religious leaders are developing the practice of putting their “foot in their mouth” into a fine art!! From the suited-booted Todd Akins in the US to the saffron-clad Asaram Bapus in India – this notion of blaming the women for men’s weaknesses seem embedded in the psyche.

It reinforces the challenge I face as a mother narrating puranic stories to my children (ages 10 and 8). While it is so heart-warming to see them absorb the stories, accept them at face values and even be influenced in their actions by these stories, I stumble when faced with stories that deal with the world’s “oldest profession” as it is called.

I stumbled when we watched the episode of Satyakama Jabala on “Upanishad Ganga”.

Me: Nobody would teach Satyakama since his mother Jabala was considered an evil woman
Son: Did she do something bad?
Me: Well, she was a prostitute
Son/Daughter: ???
Me: Well, she didn’t have a husband like other women with children. Many men came and stayed with her. (me trying to avoid going further)
Daughter (who is a little more aware): Then, who was Satyakama’s dad?
Me: Well, since we lived with many men, she didn’t know. 
Daughter: But why? Could she not have married one of them?
Me: She could have. She was forced to be with many men.. maybe she was too poor or helpless. But once you do that, the whole town thought you were bad and nobody would marry you. 
Son: But that’s not fair.. if she is poor, then they should help her. 

Well, children do see things in black and white – maybe that’s the way to see it. Long story short, all our puranic stories as well as stories across the world, while acknowledging these women were pushed into it, at the same time, turn around and point to women as sinners, evil and temptresses. Same with Jabala, Mary Magdalene as with Nirbhaya.

One runs into this everywhere.. vedantic texts (Bhaja Govindam), Carnatic compositions (para dhana nari in dhyaname, para himsa para bhama in ente nerchina).

It used to puzzle me why great saints like Adi Shankar and Tyagaraja focused so much on this as though this were an everyday occurrence. Atleast in the circles we move in, it is so rare to hear of explicit violations. However, even while not widespread, they probably mention it only because it is the oldest vice.. a vice that predated drugs, alcoholism, cheating for money, etc.

Let’s never forget – It is only because men had this oldest vice that the oldest profession was created.